Today is the last day of winter vacation. Tomorrow (Saturday), we go back to school. The students show up Monday and it may be we will have a series of presentations for them, not all of which I will need to deliver myself. The workload is not that heavy for the first week, but it has its own frustrations. It’s tiring, even if there is not much to do. Certainly, the rhythm of daily life will change: it’s time to reflect and to make a course correction as needed.
The experiment I refer to is French. In August, I had the idea of studying language in my spare time. I’m not trying to write novels anymore–I’ve given that up. I don’t have kids living in my house. I do have time–if not always energy–for things that interest me.
I began by putting time into several languages. French only got 20 minutes a day. I did some research on how many hours it takes to learn a language to some kind of basic level (typically) and I began to realize 20 minutes a day would mean waiting a very long time to see results. This would be all right except that it’s hard to evaluate your methods. It’s like therapy: is this just a long process or is my approach actually not working? How would you even know?
So I switched it up. I think at first I spent an hour a day. It might have been two. When regular classes ended and we just had exams to deal with, I went for three. For part of the vacation, I spent six hours or more on it.
I studied French because it seemed like I had the best chance of success: it’s the easiest language for an English speaker to learn and I already had some background. I mentioned before I felt I had something to prove to myself, partly about being able to learn, partly about being able to pursue a goal and succeed in it. In the process, I learned some things about myself as well as about learning.
I almost succeeded, I should also say. Initially, I had the goal of being able to understand ordinary conversation to a reasonable degree, the kind of thing you hear on TV. I thought it would be great to be able to watch a French TV show and follow the plot well enough to enjoy it. Yesterday, I didn’t think I was anywhere close to that, but then I watched something today and I understood very clearly maybe a third of the time. At other times, I was floundering still or scanning the action carefully for clues. So I didn’t reach my goal in 6 months, but I may get there in another few weeks. That’s pretty good, in my view, and I feel proud of what I was able to do.
It changes how I see myself in ways I haven’t digested yet. They may not stick. It’s sometimes hard for me to tell the difference between a mood and a paradigm shift. I’ll let you know.
(I didn’t finish the post. It’s Sunday now. I had a stressful morning for complicated reasons, couldn’t understand anything and don’t feel the same kind of pride. It may come back…I’m just not sure what I accomplished.)
At a simple level, since I’m a teacher it interested me to observe the balancing act of challenge. Too much challenge, and we don’t enjoy learning and aren’t able to stick with it–we may not even learn. Too easy and we lose out on a sense of accomplishment. We did it, but what we did has no meaning. I’m sure this varies from person, and also perhaps from day to day, but everyone has a sweet spot where effort pays off in meaningful ways. I learned to expect this kind of variation. On some days, more challenge felt good and was productive. On others, I couldn’t hack it.
I had some observations about myself as a learner. Some of it may be true for other people. Some of it is probably about being gifted and some is about trauma.
The hallmark of giftedness is uneven development and a need for complexity to sustain interest. I once had a gifted student who couldn’t solve simple equations accurately, but he was much more competent if they were long and difficult. I’m sure he got bored and his mind wandered. So I worked at the highest level of challenge I could sustain, and not where I actually was. It means I sometimes lack foundation. There are gaps and holes in what I know. But you have to keep wanting to learn. And I accepted I am like this.
My performance from day to day is not consistent either. This is probably about trauma. It’s hard for me to keep my brain working well. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost ground. In my life, this is my single greatest frustration. More than most people, sometimes I am great at things. Sometimes I am really not great at those same things. It’s not just a matter of perspective.
But I can learn.